Peter Jackson, writer-producer-director of The Lord of the Rings, got his start making low-budget splatter flicks in New Zealand. At first glance, he hardly seems the likeliest candidate to make one of the most ambitious film projects ever. But upon close inspection of his work, he is the perfect filmmaker to bring J.R.R. Tolkien's epic tale to life. He displayed virtuoso technical skill in his debut feature, Bad Taste. He revealed an unrestrained imagination in Braindead. He masterfully balanced fantasy, horror, comedy and drama in Heavenly Creatures. And he proved he could create inventive special effects using New Zealand's production resources in The Frighteners. New Line Cinema's trilogy stands as an exemplar of Jackson's versatility and unwavering determination. The first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, opened Dec. 19, with sequels set for December 2002 and 2003.
The first chapter introduces audiences to Middle Earth as a shadow grows across the land. The future of civilization rests in the fate of the One Ring, a powerful instrument of evil created by the dark lord Sauron. By chance, the ring falls into the hands of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who passes it on to his cousin Frodo (Elijah Wood). When the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) discovers that Frodo possesses the ring and that dark forces are searching for it, he urges the hobbit to leave his quiet home in the Shire for the elf kingdom of Rivendell. There, at the Council of Elrond (Hugo Weaving), it is decided that the ring must be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom, where it was forged. Frodo reluctantly volunteers for the quest, and a coalition of different races from Middle Earth assembles to accompany him. The fellowship includes: Gandalf the Grey; Frodo's hobbit friends Sam (Sean Astin), Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd); the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom); the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies); and the humans Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean). Pursued by Orcs and other wicked creatures, the company embarks on a perilous journey towards Mordor, the land of the enemy.
Jackson, born on Halloween in 1961, first read The Lord of the Rings when he was 18. At the time, he was working as an apprentice photo engraver and making films after-hours. He had a passion for fantasy-adventure movies, especially King Kong and the work of special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen. But Jackson was not a die-hard fan of Tolkien's classic from the beginning. "People assume I was because of all the years I've put into making this film, but I really wasn't." Jackson says. "Obviously, it was a great book and I thought it would make a good movie, but I was always looking forward to somebody else making it so I could go see it."
While in post-production on The Frighteners in 1995, the director and his partner/collaborator Frances Walsh contemplated their next project. "I thought it would be great to do a fantasy-adventure film, using modern technology to create the creatures and the environment," Jackson says. "Fran and I talked about doing an original screenplay. We kept saying, 'It's got to be a Lord of the Rings-style world; it's got to have that sort of feeling.' We were talking about Lord of the Rings so much that we thought, 'Why don't we make an inquiry about the rights?'"
It turned out producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus) owned the rights. In 1978, Zaentz and director Ralph Bakshi created an animated version of Tolkien's book. Fortunately for Jackson, he had a first-look deal at Miramax Films, which, at the time, was making the Zaentz-produced The English Patient. Within a year, Miramax secured the rights and Jackson, Walsh and Tolkien expert Philippa Boyens began to work on the script for what was being planned as two films.
The screenwriters faced the daunting task of adapting the 1,000-page tome, while still honoring its author's intentions. "We didn't have any particular technique or plan," Jackson explains. "We just used our own gut reaction. We were all fans of the book, so we made our choices based on what we thought would be good for the film. As a filmmaker or a writer, you're always imagining the film that you'd want to see. Our primary responsibility was to make a good film; our secondary responsibility was to be faithful to Tolkien, because there's no point in being faithful to Tolkien and making a bad film."
After 18 months of script development and preliminary design work, the production came to a halt when Miramax couldn't acquire enough funding, unless the two films were compressed into one. Jackson says he was unwilling to compromise the story, so he negotiated for a one-month window to shop the project around to other studios. The director made the rounds in Hollywood, armed with the script and a 23-minute preview reel, but everyone passed. "New Line was our last meeting on the day we were due to leave," Jackson recalls. "We screened the reel for Bob Shaye [New Line chairman and CEO]. He watched it in silence. At the end, he said, 'I don't know why you'd want to make two films.' I thought that was the end. Then he carried on, 'Why would you want to make two films when there are three books? Shouldn't you be making three films?'"
In October 1999, all three films began shooting simultaneously in order to release the sequels at short intervals and to cut costs. During the 15-month shoot, the production filmed all over New Zealand, with multiple crews sometimes working concurrently. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," the director declares. "Making one three hour movie with 600 visual-effects shots, locations, a big cast and lots of extras is tough. When you do three, you're making nine hours worth of the same tricky, hard stuff. It's three times as hard. But it was the most well organized film that I've ever been on. For me, that was what saved the film. What would have been difficult was if the production had fallen into chaos. It would have added another layer of stress, which fortunately never happened. That's a credit to Barry Osborne, our producer." Osborne, who also produced The Matrix, had experience with challenging projects. Early in his career, he served as a production manager on Apocalypse Now, infamous for its grueling shoot.
The Lord of the Rings boasts a strong international cast. The casting of the film fell into two categories: roles that Jackson and company had specific actors in mind for and roles that called for an extensive talent search. "When we were thinking of who should play Gandalf, Ian McKellen was at the top of the list," Jackson says. "Sean Bean was always who we had in mind for Boromir. Ian Holm we always wanted for Bilbo. Then we had characters like Legolas. We went through every actor that we could imagine and there wasn't anybody that we really thought, 'He's the perfect Legolas.' So we went through the audition process. We auditioned in Australia, L.A. and London. We auditioned probably 200 actors, and eventually Orlando Bloom was discovered. He'd never done a film before."
The critical role of Frodo posed an interesting challenge to cast because he serves as the reader's identification figure in the book. "Who do you get to play the audience?" Jackson asks. "We couldn't think of anybody that we knew to play Frodo. We decided we'd go to London—we thought Frodo should be English. We auditioned around 200 actors in London, and then a videotape turned up in the mail from Elijah Wood. I'd never seen an Elijah Wood film, but Fran had seen The Ice Storm. She said, 'I think he's really great—this is a really interesting actor.' So we looked at the tape. Elijah had videotaped his own audition. He'd gone up to the woods with a friend. He was wearing a little hobbit costume and he was reciting lines from the book. He'd gotten a dialect coach to train him to speak with an English accent. I thought, 'That's Frodo—this guy is great.' So Elijah sort of cast himself. We can't claim credit for that."
As a work of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings joins a genre that Jackson believes is problematic. "Hollywood has steered away from fantasy most of the time because there is a lack of confidence in the genre," he says. "Because there's a lack of confidence, people tend to overcompensate. They consider fantasy as being make-believe fairy tales, so they think: 'Well, to make a successful fantasy film it has to be more artificial than what it would normally be.' So the performances and the designs are always over the top."
Jackson views his trilogy as being rooted in history rather than fantasy. "What I hadn't really seen before that seemed interesting is to treat fantasy as a reality, a historical reality," the director explains. "Everybody working on the film took the attitude that The Lord of the Rings is true. Tolkien didn't make it up. It's 7,000 years ago, the records have all been lost, but this is a true story about real people, whether you're a hobbit, a wizard or an elf. The monsters really lived and existed, and we're just going to present it the way it was. That was our philosophy for everything on the film."